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April 17, 2010 1:07 am
Brooklyn’s Vinegar Hill, hidden away on the East River waterfront by the old navy yard, comprises six blocks of charming 19th-century houses built in the Greek-revival style. Once a busy commercial hub for shipworkers, the neighbourhood today is residential.
Gentrification has been gentle here. Last summer, however, a restaurant in an old shop-front on Hudson Avenue suddenly put Vinegar Hill on the map. Glowing with yellow light like an oil lamp and emitting gentle music, the restaurant was instantly filled with locals and visitors from Manhattan waiting for a table at the old wooden bar. It made you wonder why no one had thought of it before.
Brooklyn is the most populous New York borough but, compared to Manhattan across the bridge, the dining scene here is young – Brooklyn has just four Michelin stars to Manhattan’s 51. However, it is growing fast as ambitious sous-chefs, trained in Manhattan restaurants, look to buy their own spaces in “undiscovered” neighbourhoods. The Brooklyn restaurant formula is simple: food should be more affordable than in Manhattan, and the atmosphere more laid-back.
The Vinegar Hill House, whose chef Jean Adamson comes from Freemans, an intimate restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, has an interior as eclectic as one of the borough’s famous flea-markets. An old organ, hand-sewn tapestries and other curios adorn the distressed walls; the bar is made from salvaged wood. The food, too, cooked in the wood-burning stove, is mix-and-match; adventurous starters include oven-roast octopus with cranberry beans and olives and wood-fired pork belly tart. The food mixes southern and French influences – both sweet and creamy. The “cast iron chicken”, sticky in a thick, vinegar marinade, arrives in a black mini-cauldron that rests on a rumpled knitted doily; roasted pollock tastes homely, flavoured with apple and mint. The Vinegar Hill House opened in 2008 to rave reviews and now visitors must wait 45 minutes on a weeknight to be served.
Saraghina is another restaurant in one of Brooklyn’s less-visited parts – sprawling and run-down Bedford-Stuyvesant, just south of Williamsburg. Nightlights in jam jars rest on the window ledges. The waiters promenade as if in a village fête, providing busy tables with carafes of reasonably-priced Italian wine.
On my last visit, the dish of the day included a nutty fava bean purée with sautéed dandelion greens that recalled peaty samphire. Best of all are the pizzas ($11 to $16), which are crispy thin and piled with buffalo mozzarella.
A good-looking Italian waiter at Saraghina with a fine moustache and plaid shirt told us that they were planning to open a breakfast bar and bakery in the backroom. But some locals are less excited – the message seems to be some gentrification is nice, but not too much, please. Online reviews of the Vinegar Hill House complain about “hipsters” (always used as an insult) taking over the neighbourhood; the Saraghina posting includes criticisms of the restaurant for importing waiters from Europe; and there is general concern about the impact on parking and property prices.
Residents of Cobble Hill in South Brooklyn, appear to have no such qualms. Smith and Court streets are home to a number of shops selling designer clothing, second-hand books and organic food. As I waited for my dining companion on Court Street, I was approached by a well-dressed young man who gave me a leftover piece of Camembert from his fridge (his wife had banned it for the smell). I was standing between Frankie’s Spuntino, a cosy bar-restaurant with steamy windows, and Prime Meats – the new restaurant opened last year by the same owners, Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli.
Influenced by “Germanic alpine cuisine”, the menu of Prime Meats “pays tribute to the American artisan movement” and it sources grass-fed meat from small farms. The interior looks as if it has been there since 1890; the walls are dark red; the bar is made of heavy, dark wood; the clientele are affluent and carefully dressed in vintage attire. The best way to experience Prime Meats is at the bar (the rye whiskey is delicious) with a tasting board of meats to share. Following up with a main course can prove a little overwhelming. The slow-cooked beef sauerbraten and braised red cabbage ($20) is sweet with apples; one bite summons an entire farmyard. The braised pork belly ($19) comes with tongue and other, less identifiable parts. Groaning as we heaved ourselves to the subway stop, we counted the number of meats in our meal – could it really be 11?
After the salvaged wood and vintage coffee spoons, the sleek design of the Vanderbilt – with high stools, marble bars and chrome fixtures – feels like a breath of fresh air blowing in from Manhattan. Situated in Prospect Heights, the restaurant-bar was launched by Saul Bolton, one of Brooklyn’s Michelin-starred chefs, and Ben Daitz of the Num Pang sandwich shop. They serve up not-so-small small plates ($5 to $18) including a good hunk of Spanish mackerel, “pasture raised” egg with spinach (dressed with mushroom “foam”, which also feels more Manhattan than Brooklyn), and blood sausage.
Bolton already has ideas for further expansion: a pizza place with red-and-white tablecloths in Prospect-Lefferts, an area with an ethnically diverse Caribbean population – and a growing hipster scene.
The Vinegar Hill House, 72 Hudson Avenue, Brooklyn.
Mains $13-24, www.vinegarhillhouse.com
Saraghina, 435 Halsey Street, Brooklyn.
Mains $1116, www.saraghinabrooklyn.com
Frankie’s Sputino, 457 Court Street, Brooklyn.
Mains $820, www.frankiesspuntino.com
Prime Meats, 465 Court Street, Brooklyn.
Mains $824, www.frankspm.com
The Vanderbilt, 570 Vanderbilt Avenue, Brooklyn.
Mains $818, www.thevanderbiltnyc.com
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